Raymond Ibrahim, a Judith Friedman Rosen fellow at the Middle East Forum and a Shillman fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center, spoke to participants in a June 22 Middle East Forum webinar (video) about the plight of the Copts, Egypt's Christians.
The word "Copt" comes from the same Greek root, Aigyptos, as the word "Egypt." After the Arab conquest of Egypt (639-646), inhabitants of the majority Christian land became known as qibt (anglicized as "Copts"), then the term narrowed to refer only to those who maintained their adherence to the Christian faith. Over the following 14 centuries, Copts dwindled to roughly 10% of the population.
The community of Christians who refused to convert to Islam were accorded the status of a dhimma, which under Islamic law allowed "people of the book" – namely, Jews and Christians – to practice their faith in return for paying a special tribute, known as jizya, and accepting a "very inferior" position in society, explained Ibrahim. "There's a long list of what you can and can't do. You can't rebuild churches, you can't build new churches. ...There was no social mobility, really. You're not going to get the good administrative jobs. You're not going to be part of the military."
On top of that, "you also have sporadic bouts of ... outright persecution ... churches being burned, Copts and others being massacred," said Ibrahim, but violence wasn't main driver leading most Copts to convert to Islam. "That demographic shift is largely due just to this institutionalized form of discrimination," or dhimmitude. "It wasn't because Copts were being slaughtered." This same system was "entrenched in ... virtually all nation that got conquered by [Muslims] and had 'people of the book' in them." In other Christian majority regions, such as North Africa, Syria, and Asia minor, "Christianity has almost disappeared."
Over the centuries, most Copts were pressured to "convert to the so-called winning team."
Academic apologists for Islam, noted Ibrahim, have often portrayed dhimmitude as a form of benevolent protection, and exemption from the military as a form of privilege. But Christians and Jews "were exempt from the military because they were infidels, and no fighting Muslim engaged in holy war wanted a Jew or Christian next to him because they weren't trustworthy and it was bad for morale," he explained. "The dhimmi system ... wasn't active persecution, but it really hampered and limited, and degraded the non-Muslim, to the point that so many of them ... [were] willing to convert to the so-called winning team."
In addition, Copts were barred from speaking their native Coptic language, which is "linguistically rooted" in the language of Pharaonic Egypt and written in an adaptation of the Greek alphabet, and instead forced to use Arabic. Coptic thus became "a liturgical language only."
During Egypt's colonial era, which began in the nineteenth century, religious "fanaticism began to wane" and secular nationalism became "the new thing," said Ibrahim, which was "good of course for people like Copts and any other non-Muslim living in a Muslim majority nation ... much better than they were in the pre-modern era."
In Egypt today, "we've come back full circle and we're starting to see the sort of pre-modern mentality resuming again." With the growth of Islamism among the population, successive Egyptian regimes have hesitated to provide equal protection under the law to Copts.
"The most obvious form of discrimination that the Christians, the Copts, are facing in Egypt has to do with their churches," said Ibrahim:
Every other week or sometimes every week ... a Muslim mob rolls up after Friday prayers against a church because it was adding a bathroom, or it was building a Sunday school. Or because there was a rumor that someone was going to build a church, or because they found out Copts who have no church we're meeting in the house, having a church service. They rise up, create havoc, violence, sometimes deaths are a result, and the authorities always respond by shutting down the church, or just canceling whatever plans the Christians had. So this is very, very common.
The authorities "turn a blind eye" to other outrages. Ibrahim recounted the recent case of a church-going Coptic woman, married with three teenage daughters, who abruptly disappeared:
[She] reappears a few weeks later after her family makes a big scene and gets a lot of media, and she appears dressed in black and you can see there's people around her giving her cues. She seems very scared saying, "I'm now a Muslim praise be Allah. I don't want you, my family, to bother with me. Don't contact me. I'm not interested. I'm happy to serve Allah and that's it."
The authorities did nothing about this. "If it was the opposite, if a Muslim woman disappeared ... even if it was voluntary, and she had converted to Christianity and ran off with a Christian man, it would be the end of the world in Egypt," said Ibrahim. "It would be the biggest scandal. They would both be thrown in jail."
There's little Copts can do to fight the discrimination they face. In October 2011, thousands of Copts peacefully protested about the demolition of a church outside the Maspero building in Cairo (where the Egyptian Radio and Television Union is headquartered). "The government responded by unleashing tanks, armored vehicles that literally ran over them. ... At least two dozen were killed," recalled Ibrahim. The Obama administration responded by calling for restraint on all sides, as if the Copts were equally responsible.
Egypt's current president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, has won a lot of praise and support from Copts for his public criticism of Islamic radicalism. But little has changed on the ground. "What's happening in Egypt is not a top-down thing. It's a bottom-up thing. It's a cultural thing. These ideas, these anti-Christian, anti-Coptic, anti-church ideas, anti-Israel, they don't come from the leadership." Ibrahim suggests that popular hostility to Christians will be a problem until religious authorities "change, or moderate, or do something with the core text[s]" of Islam, in particular "the hadith, the words and the sayings that are attributed to Muhammad."